By Peter Collopy
On November 2, 1891, classes began at Throop University—the school that would become Caltech—in a rented building in downtown Pasadena. Founder Amos Throop was a Universalist preacher and abolitionist politician who made his fortune in lumber and real estate in Chicago before moving to Los Angeles, where he bought orchards and farms, in 1880. His school offered courses in literature, music, art, elocution, stenography, typewriting, and law—with only six faculty. Throop University had trouble recruiting students, so its trustees renamed it Throop Polytechnic Institute in 1893 and reorganized it to train Pasadena’s youth, from elementary school through college, for factory work in an industrial society. Although namesake Amos Throop passed away in 1894, over the decades that followed Throop Polytechnic Institute formed alliances with influential scientists—astronomer George Hale, physicist Robert Millikan, and chemist Arthur Noyes—and reinvented itself again as a pioneering science and engineering university, renamed the California Institute of Technology in 1920.
Historian Peter S. Collopy is the University Archivist at the California Institute of Technology.
Photo courtesy of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as part of the “Then and Now” series.
By Matthew H. Hersch
The motley assortment of graduate students and amateur rocket enthusiasts looked like it came straight out of central casting: Texas-born mechanical engineer and socialist Frank Malina, imaginative Chinese émigré Hsue-Shen Tsien, enterprising undergraduate Apollo Smith, self-taught chemist and occult enthusiast Jack Parsons, along with his childhood friend and protector Edward Forman, among others. Their obsession was space travel, and particularly the liquid-fuel rocket, which Robert Goddard had invented only ten years earlier.
After the first members of the group were chased out of the laboratories of the California Institute of Technology when their rocket experiments became too explosive, they found slightly more success, and even more explosions, in a remote patch of the San Gabriel Mountains, where they tested a small rocket motor on Halloween, 1936. The men called themselves the “Suicide Club,” but Malina’s faculty advisor, leading aerodynamicist Theodore von Kármán, suggested they find a different name. Eighty-one years ago, the institution now known as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory formed out of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at Caltech. Incorporated into NASA in 1958, JPL continues to do pioneering work in space exploration, which wouldn’t have surprised Frank Malina at all.
Matthew H. Hersch is an Assistant Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University.
When we convened at the Huntington Library in 2009 for a conference on the history of technology in California and the West, we were glancing backwards from a shifting vantage point. Sure, we could look back at transformational infrastructures and the way in which they transmitted power – both literally on the state’s long distance power lines and massive dam projects, and figuratively via the Los Angeles traffic plan and the work of the RAND corporation. We could look back on humbling histories of technological hubris and failure – as with the Helmand Valley Dam Project in Afghanistan. We could see how innovations of the past turned desolate spots into hubs, as with the clocks in the ground somewhere outside Barstow, California, that control many of our GPS devices. We read old technologies as romanticizations of the past – just take a look at San Diego’s Panama Exhibition or the Golden Gate Bridge administrators’ long fight against a suicide barrier, but also discussed historical fantasies of technological futures – such as those of 1970s Californians, fragile and easily usurped when out of place.
As our group broached questions about the relationship between technologies and their place in the West with a good amount of eclecticism, we had one thing in common though: None of us had any certainty about the future trajectory of technological change. I hope Patrick McCray, our expert on the history of technological futures, would agree with me that past eras of rapid technological change coincided with a stronger sense – however false – of what the future would hold. If the continuing developments and disruptive innovations of the digital age have taught us anything, it is that we need to constantly ask new questions about what technologies do to societies, cultures, and identities, who builds them, and what we gain or lose in the process. All the more reason, then, to reference Minds and Matters today and develop new questions out of those we raised then.
Professor of History at Cal State Fullerton, Dr. Volker Janssen was ICW’s postdoctoral fellow from 2008-2009. In addition to participating in the conference, Janssen edited the book that followed the conference, Where Minds and Matter Meet: Technology in California and the West -which is available through the University of California Press. He shared this brief update:
After some years, I hope to return to the field of technology history with a jointly hosted conference in Washington D.C. with the support of the German Historical Institute and the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin next spring. There, I hope to revisit a fairly humble technological infrastructure that nonetheless put wheels on a number of transformational popular movements of the mid-century: the interstate bus.